Hari's family joined Auroville in the very early years. Along with other Tamil boys like Jothi, Rathinam, Selvaraj and Rama, he lived in a community house in Aspiration under the benevolent eyes of Jean and Gordon Korstange. In the early 1980s his interest in vehicles and anything mechanical led to his involvement in community transport. “When SAIIER started, four buses were bought and Hervé was put in charge of them. I became his assistant. When Hervé left in the late 1980s some of us decided to run the Transport Service as a group. However, one by one the others dropped out and I was left.”
Hari has now been working with the Auroville Transport Service for over twenty years. He's never worked, and never wanted to work, in an Auroville commercial unit. Why not? “I wanted to be free to do other activities, like sports, which would widen my knowledge, and I knew that working in a commercial unit would not allow me the time to do this. Also, I wanted to work for the community as a whole rather than for a particular unit. You see, from a very early age we boys were introduced to the idea of collective living and of working for the community, so even today if you ask us about our ideals we will only talk about doing things collectively. However, that spirit seems much weakened in the present Auroville.”
Today the Auroville Transport Service maintains nine vehicles. Its main task is to transport children to and from the schools, but it also runs a free bus service to Pondicherry three times a week for anybody who wishes to use it. “We also provide transport for school and sports trips outside Auroville, and for picking up individuals and groups from Madras who are coming here for workshops or to help with education. But our regular obligations always come first, and we don't do weddings or family outings!”
Does he charge for this? Hari takes a deep, unhappy breath. “There's a big gap between what we get from the Central Fund and our running expenses, so while the school service, some field trips, and all Pondicherry trips are free, we have to charge for special journeys. But we don't charge commercially, only to cover our expenses.”
Hari thinks that the Transport Service is neglected – “You're the first person in twenty years who has come to find out what we're doing here.” He also feels generally unsupported by the relevant groups in Auroville. “The Transport Service had been cramped for many years in Abri, so I requested the Development Group for another space but nobody came to look. It was only when I threatened to stop the Transport Service that a new space was allocated to us. Even in the new space, we've had to raise the money for the buildings ourselves – and after two years we still don't have a water connection. No help comes from
SAIIER for such things, although they do help with tools and furniture – and Sanjeev and Ashok always try their best to help us with their limited resources.”
Why does he think his repeated requests for additional financial help are not met? “The Economy Group tells me that there is not enough money but, frankly, I don't think they believed me when I described my difficulties.” Hari points out that the Tamil Nadu road tax for buses has increased from Rs 2,000 a year to between Rs 18,000-22,000 a year. Then there's the insurance, the regular maintenance of buildings and vehicles, and the fact that the older vehicles need to be repaired and repainted annually to get their Fitness Certificates. In fact, two of the most-used vehicles are 18 years old now and finding spares for them is “just one more of the hidden hassles. Then we have to pay our drivers. One of them has been with us for fifteen years, he's had to put up with very difficult driving conditions and aggressive Aurovilians, and he's still only earning Rs 4,000 a month. I've sent the Economy Group all the figures but I don't think they really look at them. To get something done, it depends upon whom you know on these groups. The Transport Service has very little power because most of the people who use us are children or are on maintenance and don't have any influence – and we're too soft, too nice, we don't push hard enough. Fortunately I have friends like Gordon and Jean in the U.S. who are willing to speak for me. But it's very disturbing when fellow Aurovilians don't seem to listen to you.”
How does he manage if the Transport Service is underfunded? “Somehow we juggle. My policy is that if I take up a job I do it, no matter how difficult it is. But it will be very difficult to keep running to the end of the financial year.”
Over the past 10-15 years there has been a sea-change in the service sector of Auroville. More and more of them have been required to become self-sufficient through charging for their services. Does Hari think this is a good idea? “No, it's a change in the wrong direction. I've always believed that Auroville services should be fully supported by the Central Fund so that users are not charged individually.” One of the arguments used at the time was that many services were running inefficiently, and requiring them to charge would also require them to give better customer satisfaction. “That was the argument of business people, and business-minded people don't understand the actual picture. Those services were not running well because they'd never been adequately funded – that's one reason why so few Aurovilians work in the services, it's too frustrating. Take us, for example. Some people seem to think our vehicles run on water! In spite of that, whatever job we take up we do without fail and people are generally very satisfied. At the same time, we would like to expand our service – to run a daily bus to Pondicherry and to provide a public Transport Service within Auroville – but for this to happen we have to be supported practically, not just through nice words.” ‘Practically' means the immediate replacement of the two 18-year old vehicles, the purchase of an additional bus for internal transport, plus the means to maintain and run all the vehicles and to adequately recompense Hari's loyal team for their work.
It's time, in other words, for those who want a good community transport service, as well as a vibrant and egalitarian service sector in Auroville, to show where they stand.